Jewish soldiers buried under a cross, mistake fixed 75 years later

In a moving ceremony in Manila, five headstones of American Jewish soldiers who died during WWII were replaced thanks to Operation Benjamin.

Operation Benjamin ceremony at the Manila American Cemetery on February 12, 2020. (photo credit: OPERATION BENJAMIN)
Operation Benjamin ceremony at the Manila American Cemetery on February 12, 2020.
(photo credit: OPERATION BENJAMIN)
In 2014, just a few days ahead of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter visited the Normandy American Cemetery. Deeply moved by a site that he describes as an “incredibly touching, solemn, quiet, holy space surrounded by the remains of American soldiers who gave up their lives for freedom,” the rabbi, a professor of Jewish history and thought at Yeshiva University, started to realize he was expecting more tombs carrying a Star of David instead of a cross.
A little more than five years later, a ceremony took place at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines on Wednesday to replace the gravestones of five Jewish soldiers who were previously buried under a Latin cross.
As Schacter explained to The Jerusalem Post, an organized effort to identify those soldiers who were mistakenly buried with the wrong religious mark stemmed from that first insight, eventually prompting the establishment of a nonprofit organization devoted to this mission called Operation Benjamin, after the name of the soldier whose case was the first successful one of marker change.
“After J.J. told me about his experience in Normandy, I spent hours and hours researching the matter,” Schacter’s long-time friend and Operation Benjamin founder Shalom Lamm told the Post. “Since the beginning, the numbers seemed to match his impression: Jews represented about 2.7% of American soldiers who fought in the Second World War, [and] the cemetery in Normandy has about 10,000 graves – and yet, only 149 tombs [1.5%] carried a Star of David.”
With the help of a volunteer, Schacter and Lamm started to go through the database of those who are buried in Normandy, identifying all of the people buried under a cross whose names could sound Jewish. They then started researching them with the support of Steve Lamar, a government-relations advocate and an amateur genealogist.
Benjamin, whose full name was Benjamin Barney Garadetsky, was born Boruch Reigorodeczki in 1914 to a Jewish family in Zhitomir, part of modern-day Ukraine, and immigrated to the US as a child. He enlisted in 1941 and was killed in 1944 during a Luftwaffe bombing.
LAMM, WHO holds a masters degree in American military history, said in those chaotic times, soldiers were buried very quickly after they died, not to mention that many chose to carry a different religion on their identification tag or to throw it away if there was a risk of falling in the enemy’s hands – knowing that as Jews, the Nazis would not treat them as normal prisoners of war.
“After the war, the world was much larger than today, so even if the families of the deceased became aware of the mistake, rectifying it would be too challenging,” Lamm said.
It turned out that Garadetsky’s parents and sisters are buried in a cemetery not far from where Lamm lives. Although the team managed to collect ample proof of the soldier’s Jewish identity, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which manages American military cemeteries overseas, would consider a request to replace the headstone only from a family member of the soldiers.
“We put an ad in a Jewish newspaper,” Lamm said.
After a few weeks, someone who knew of a relative of Garadetsky responded, helping them connect. In 2018, the Latin cross was replaced with a Jewish star.
So far, Operation Benjamin, which was first established by Lamm and Schacter in 2016 as the Normandy Heritage Project – a name that was eventually abandoned because the initiative was expanded to other American cemeteries – has successfully identified the cases of 11 soldiers whose marker change has already been approved by the ABMC.
For another 20 to 25 soldiers, investigations are already at an advanced stage, while hundreds are still waiting to be examined.
Among those whose tombstones were replaced in Manila were two soldiers who died of starvation and hardship in Japanese prison camps, Pvt. Louis Wolf, 25, and Pvt. Arthur Waldman, 27; Lt. Robert S. Fink, who succumbed to scrub typhus on his 25th birthday; Sgt. Jack Gilbert, 37, who was hit by enemy shell fire on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea; and Pvt. Allan C. Franken, 20, who was a member of the 24th Infantry Division and died from a gunshot wound on May 24, 1945. Both Gilbert and Franken were awarded the Purple Heart.
“I grew up hearing a lot about him,” his nephew, Rabbi John Franken, told the Post in a phone call from Manila ahead of the ceremony.
“My father was three years younger than his brother, and they were very close,” said Franken, whose middle name is Allan, like his uncle. “They had a hard childhood. They were born in a family with a lot of privilege. But after the Great Depression came along, they lost everything, and the family broke apart. My father and his brother grew up together in a Jewish orphanage in New Haven.”
Brothers had a very strong Jewish identity, he said. Allan was very patriotic, and after he was drafted, he asked to be transferred to infantry so that he could fight, he said, adding: “He was convinced it was a just war.”
FRANKEN SAID they knew he was buried under a cross, but, as painful as the idea was, his family did not think that anything could be done – until Operation Benjamin found him about a year ago. With their help, he quickly completed the application, which was approved by the ABMC in record time.
“What is moving us is the notion of performing a real chesed shel emet,” Schacter told the Post, referring to the traditional Hebrew term to describe an act of loving kindness toward a deceased person. “These soldiers lived as Jews, died as Jews and should be remembered as Jews.”
Schacter, whose father served in the US Army as a chaplain during World War II and was among the soldiers who first entered the Buchenwald concentration camp to liberate it, said in a time of growing antisemitism, it is important to make the point “that there were more American Jews who gave up their lives for America, for freedom, for democracy, for the entire world.”
Franken echoed his words, saying: “I think for me, this is not only chesed shel emet, but chesed v’emet [kindness and truth]. Only a few pieces of information are on display on each soldier’s grave: the name, the rank, the home state and the religion. After a mistake that lasted for decades, this is a real restoration of the truth of who my uncle was as a person, as a human being, as a Jew. Being here is very special, moving and emotional/”
At the ceremony, Israeli Ambassador to the Philippines Rafael Harpaz recited El Maleh Rahamim, the traditional Jewish prayer for the departed.